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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

September 12, 2008

Based on a true story, Flash of Genius dramatizes the struggles of professor and engineer Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear) against the Ford Motor Company over the invention of the intermittent windshield wiper. When the company begins to roll out a design that is eerily similar to his own, Kearns embarks on a lifetime of legal battles that insidiously erode his relationship with his wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham) and their six children. Refusing an astonishing amount of monetary settlements, Kearns obsessively continues to demand that the auto giant admit they stole his creation, and finds himself unable to deter himself from his single-minded crusade, despite the ultimate consequences it brings upon his family.

Flash of Genius includes several noteworthy supporting performances, not the least of which is Alan Alda's turn as a lawyer who, rooted in an understanding of the corporate machine, tries to persuade Kearns to take a more logical course of action.

In this interview, Greg Kinnear talks about tackling the heavy role of Robert Kearns and working on this nostalgic David-and-Goliath story.

The Interview

MEDIA: How much did you relate to Robert Kearns?

GREG: Well, I have kids, and obviously, the part of him as a father that ended up setting his children aside to make this thing right was troubling to watch, troubling to read when I first read the script, and is still kind of a difficult aspect of the story to swallow. [laughs] But how do you ever put yourself in this guy's shoes? I mean, this was an idea that was manifested out of a personal handicap. I think, obviously, he felt like this was something deeply personally to him, and the way in which he had been marginalized in all this created some sort of behavior in him that was...I wouldn't call it obsessive, but it was obviously something that he couldn't let go of, you know? It's akin to saying to somebody you know who has a drinking problem, "You know what you really need to do? Stop drinking. If you don't drink anymore, you'll be fine." And I think that his family, and certainly the Ford Motor Company and a lot of people around him, are unsettled by the idea that he can't just work his way through this...I think it's funny how the audience, in a way, their sense as they're watching it kind of mirrors the Ford Motor Company. You know, it's, "Come on, take the money! Just bend, it'll be okay!" We live in a world where they have game shows about taking the money now...So I think people really feel like, "There's a way out of this, why don't you take it, Mr. Kearns?" And what I was intrigued by all along with the story is just his inability to do that and why. And the idea that, ultimately, it's grounded in principle--not about money, but real principle--I thought was pretty incredible. And he's not a perfect character, you know? He's not a guy who doesn't have his own shortcomings. He's abrupt and prickly and self-destructive in a way. But in spite of all of those qualities, I really felt myself championing his journey. I wanted him to find some satisfaction in all of this. [jokes] So that's the short answer for you.

Having done both Fast Food Nation and Flash of Genius, which do you think is the more formidable corporate adversary: the fast food industry or the automotive industry?

Well, I don't know. You know, the fast food industry isn't, certainly, the tobacco industry, but the dietary needs of what we know would help make our country healthier and what they're serving do seem to be a little bit at odds with each other in a pretty severe way. The automotive corporations, including Ford, I think, are in the business of trying to make cars that people will drive--I mean, I think the fault with the automotive [industry] right now is just the fact that we're not getting as many miles for every gallon of gasoline in the year 2008 that I think all of us hoped we would be by this point. But in terms of the way Ford's portrayed in this movie, I liked the representation of them. I didn't feel like these were guys in black hats twisting their mustaches. Nor did I feel that way about Alan Alda's character, who's basically explaining to Bob how justice works, in a very articulate way. Ford felt like maybe something had been done wrong here, and thought buying him off--like any corporation does today, paying money--could remove this from their plate. And of course, they came across the worst possible kind of adversary: a guy who's not driven by money, a guy driven by principle. And I'm not sure that this kind of story could even exist in 2008 right now. I mean, if a friend of yours told you they were going to go fight Google, you'd give them a bottle of Prozac and put them to bed if they were going to go represent themselves. And in a way, it's a nostalgic story. I think the Bob Kearns story is kind of the last chapter of an individual being able to take on a corporation. Today, it'd all be a class action suit, it would all be about money and settlements and all that stuff. But this guy, having the audacity to do what he did, and at great cost--like I said, I think he lost a lot in this--is a story that I'm not sure can ever happen again.

A central point of the story is that Kearns is constantly turning down money and demanding that Ford admit they stole his invention. Do you feel that he may have been driven by a huge ego trip, and not just principle?

I kind of feel like if this was a guy who needed his ego stroked or needed to be on the cover of Reader's Digest or Inventor Magazine, or on whatever the Entertainment Tonight of the day was, I would have felt less strongly about the character. I don't think that's what he was looking for. There's no indication of that. I think he really needed just the smallest identification of this idea having been his. I mean, that's really what he was chasing. And they wouldn't give it to him. And I still don't understand why not...You know, again, talking about corporations, they're so big there's not a person at a corporation--it's rules and ideas, and I'm sure that part of it's just the idea that they wouldn't, out of policy, do that.

Did you ever get the chance to meet Kearns?

He died the year before I got involved with the project. I would have liked to have met him. I really would have, but did not. I met his family...His wife Phyllis, she came by the set. And his son Dennis actually was very helpful. I talked to him quite a bit before we started the movie. And he was the oldest son, obviously. And the other kids came by. And that was all very interesting. I mean, [director Marc Abraham] showed the movie for the family. I think it was very emotional, maybe some sort of cathartic process. Having had this realized as a film was in some ways more satisfying than even his lawsuit was, for them to say, "Ah-ha! There's the story of our dad!"

How would you characterize Bob and Phyllis' relationship in the aftermath of the lawsuits and the giant strain on the family that drove them apart?

I think they were cordial. My sense was that she still was in love with him. [jokes] "Sequel!" No, I really did. You know, she described him as a larger-than-life kind of guy for her. And she was telling me after he had cracked the invention and had success with it, he came running into the house, he said, "I'm going to buy you a Cadillac for each foot!" [laughs] He was so excited, and everybody in the family, I think, kind of got caught up in the wake of that enthusiasm of his. At the same time, as is the case with somebody of that kind of manic behavior, the lows were pretty bad. But she was in a difficult position. And I thought Lauren was really great in the movie, because that's a tricky role. She's the one who leaves him, and yet you need to understand why, and you need to understand her limited options. And it's a fine line, and I thought Lauren did a nice job.

Random side question, which vaguely relates since the movie involves the auto industry: What kind of car do you drive now, and what was the first car you ever had?

I drive a Mercedes-Benz...It is a four-three-zero, I believe. Does that sound right? I'm not a big car guy. [laughs] And then the first car that I ever had was a Volkswagen. It was the kind of long...It was like a wagon...And I crashed it, unfortunately. I didn't have it till I was in college, because when I lived in Greece, my parents didn't think it was a good idea for me to be driving around Greece. But I ran "kind of an unclear colored light" and smashed into an oncoming vehicle. So that was the end of that.

You're in just about every scene in Flash of Genius. Do you feel like this is the most you've ever had to carry a movie?

It felt like a lot. I mean, Auto Focus, I guess, was kind of like that. Yeah, this was a lot. It was a lot of shooting. There wasn't a lot of breaks. I'm used to movies where I get breaks, which is nice, and look forward to that again. [laughs]

Given your success in films, including various awards for Little Miss Sunshine and an Oscar nomination for As Good As It Gets in '97, do you consider yourself a "movie star"?

No, I don't. I never know what that term means. I mean, I don't consider a lot of actors that I really admire "movie stars." So I don't know. A movie star, to me, sounds like some guy who takes Jacuzzis and champagne baths, and wears a boa, and has a pet monkey that he carries around the house.

[jokes] So in that respect, you are a movie star...

So in that respect, I am a movie star. [laughs] But I don't know...Yeah, I do work in movies. "Feature length motion pictures," as I call them. And I like that part of it.

Thanks for your time.

Thank you.

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Interview with Lauren Graham on Flash of Genius
Movie Coverage: Flash of Genius
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